THE SECRET DOOR
I watched as the moving truck pulled out of the driveway, leaving behind a trail of exhaust that faded into nothingness within seconds. Behind me, I could hear Josh already attacking the boxes and brown paper as he excavated our belongings. I turned away from the window and walked past Josh, wanting a few moments to wander the house alone, getting a feel for the place before we filled it with stuff. This was going to be a new start for Josh and I, we were going to move on with our lives and I wanted the move to be in the right direction.
Our marriage had been severely tested with the disappearance of our only son, Luke, two years earlier. He had been just three, a curious, almost preternaturally cheerful child who had been snatched from us while our backs were turned –just for the fraction of a second- while Christmas shopping. After two years with no ransom demands, and no sign of the boy, we had to assume the worst. Just last week we’d had a funeral for him, burying a collection of his favourite toys in the coffin, and finally saying goodbye.
The new house was supposed to be a new beginning, but I could not help but feel uneasy. It was not the house I would have chosen, not the house Josh would have picked either. Yet each time we passed it, it seemed to call to us. We’d finally called the real estate agent and asked to take a look, despite the fact we knew the neighbourhood was wrong for us, the house too large.
As soon as we walked in we knew it was out house. How, I couldn’t tell you, but the feeling was there nonetheless.
The wooden floorboards in the hallway glowed in the weak winter sunlight. They were heavily varnished and felt cool and smooth under my bare feet, like walking on amber. I climbed the stairs, allowing my toes to curl in the thick pile of the carpet. At the top of the steps I paused, looking down the wide hallway, doors opening off it here and there. The bathroom, all blue and white tile, then the room that would be my office, our bedroom, Josh’s man-cave and….
I stopped, staring at a narrow door I had not seen before. We’d been to look at the house twice before finally deciding to purchase it, and I did not remember seeing this door either time. I frowned, racking my brain for any recollection of this door. Then I remembered the ornate wardrobe the previous owners had kept in the hallway. It must have been in front of this door.
Pulling on the doorknob, I was surprised to find the door locked, or possibly jammed closed. In my pocket were all the keys the real estate agent had passed on to us. I dug them out and tried them, none working. A bobby-pin from my hair had the lock sprung in seconds. I hesitated before opening the door, then went to the top of the stairs.
“Josh!” I called, certain he wouldn’t hear me over the rock music he was playing in the living room. He must’ve unearthed the stereo first. “Hey! Josh!”
“What?” Josh came into the hallway and looked up at me, his too-long dark hair falling about his face.
“Come and look at this,” I said. “There’s a mystery door up here.”
Josh climbed up a few steps until he was on the small triangular landing midway. “What do you mean?”
“There’s a door I never saw before,” I explained. “You know where they had that big antique armoire?”
“There’s a door there?” Josh’s long legs made short work of the remaining stairs and he was beside me in seconds, staring down the hall at the door. “Huh. Who would’ve thought?”
“It was locked,” I told him as we walked the length of the hall. “I sprung it, but I haven’t looked in there yet.”
As soon as Josh pushed open the door the smell assaulted us. I gagged at it, barely managing to hold down my lunch. I had a sudden memory of our honeymoon trip to Asia, the stench of the open-pit toilets we’d been forced to use in more remote areas. The air behind that closed door smelled like that, of faeces and piss, lots of it.
“Ugh!” I groaned, stepping away from the open door. “That’s disgusting!”
“What the hell is up there?” Josh peered up the narrow staircase, but the light was too dim to see anything. “Hold on,” he whispered, although I’m not sure why. “I’m going to get a flashlight.”
It seemed eons before Josh returned with the torch. I almost climbed the steps alone, without it, but the foulness of the smell kept me at bay.
“Sorry,” Josh muttered as he shone the beam of light up the staircase. “I couldn’t find it. Had to go through about twelve boxes. Why was a flashlight in a box marked ‘kitchen goods?”
“We keep it in the kitchen.” I shrugged and Josh about to say something more when a sound from above made us freeze.
It was a strange, mewling sound, something between a baby’s cry and that of an injured cat. I glanced at Josh briefly, surprised by the terror I saw in his eyes.
“I’m going up!” I whispered, taking a deep breath and holding it before I plunged into the fetid air.
The stairway was narrow and creaked as I climbed it. I looked over my shoulder and found Josh right behind me, his forearm over his nose as he tried to breathe shallow breaths through his mouth. The stairs ended abruptly and I found myself in a low ceilinged attic room. The only light spilled in through a single round window, coated with years of dust and grime. Josh shone the flashlight around, revealing a pile of filthy bedding in one corner. In another corner was the source of the stench: a plastic bucket over-flowing with excrement. Flies buzzed lazily around it. I choked back nausea as I followed the white beam around further, the light picking out what appeared to be a crumpled pile of linen up against the far wall.
The pile moved slightly; I caught a glimpse of an eye peeking out from the centre of the pile of rags. I was just starting towards it when the sound made me stop in my tracks, mouth falling open with shock.
“Mama?” Luke croaked, the morbific sheets falling away from his gaunt, pale face.